We're driving through Dubai's high-rise financial district, admiring the way in which the most intricate of Arabic designs have been incorporated into the city's sky-scraping pillars of post-modernism.More Dubai
5 FREE THINGS TO DO
A DUBAI STOPOVER
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Our Arabian Adventures tour guide is a wonderfully enthusiastic Sri Lankan man by the unlikely name of Shirley. He's a fellow who loves his facts and figures, so he's definitely moved to the right place. He reels off a list of all the things of which Dubai has the best, the biggest, or the most of ... and the list is mind-bogglingly long.
As some might already know, Dubai boasts the world's tallest building, the glittering shard of light that is the Burj Khalifa, which tops 820m, and the world's first six-star hotel, the famous sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, one of the city's most identifiable landmarks, where guests have their own private butlers and a fleet of Rolls Royces to choose from.
Then there's the world's biggest shopping complex, the vast Dubai Mall, which boasts 1200 separate retailers, an indoor ice-skating rink, a massive aquarium and KidZania, an "edutainment" zone where the littlies can pretend to be doctors or firefighters while the parents go off to spend some hard-earned cash.
Dubai has a bit of a monopoly on big, record-breaking things, most of which are man-made. It's hard not to be seduced by its shiny metallic surfaces and the sheer lavish scale of everything.
Let me note right here that there are many, many other layers and facets to Dubai than its status as a luxury destination, but all the stories you've heard - about the opulence, the wealth, the internationalism, the glamour - are pretty much true, despite the GFC slowing construction of new zones down from breakneck to merely whiplash speed.
If you have the income and the inclination, Dubai offers luxury beyond your wildest dreams. There are plenty of affordable things to do here, but if you really want to give your credit card a good thrashing, this energetic and intriguing city presents a seemingly inexhaustible smorgasbord of fine hotels, spas, restaurants and shopping experiences to indulge in.
Although we spent 50 per cent of our week-long stay in Dubai doing what the local Emiratis do - browsing the souks, visiting mosques, snacking on local favourites (chicken shawarmas are a must) and visiting Indian tailors in the gritty Satwa district - we also stay in and visit some truly jaw-dropping luxury hotels. There are more than 70 five-star hotels to choose from in Dubai.
Apart from the better-known horizon-definers, such as the Burj Al Arab and the Egyptian pyramid-shaped Raffles Dubai, there are a few word-of-mouth newcomers that are forging new definitions of discreet luxury.
The One & Only complex on Palm Jumeirah, a man-made resort built on reclaimed land and created in the shape of a sprawling date palm tree, is now being talked about as one of the Gulf region's finest, where residents can soak up the sun on their own tract of private beach or dine at the marvellous 101 restaurant, which sits at the end of a long jetty and casts its eye back over the city's glittering neon skyline at night.
If your wallet doesn't allow for a stay at the Burj Al Arab, with its heady (or headache-inducing, depending on your taste) interiors and custom-blended scents pumped into every room, or the slightly more understated sophistication of the Raffles Dubai, it's still worth a visit for their popular afternoon high teas. High tea in the United Arab Emirates, I'm told, is akin to shopping and horse-racing: a national obsession.
Each hotel offers a very different high tea experience. The Burj Al Arab's Ultimate High Tea is a seven-course endurance test that is beautiful to look at on the plate but difficult to get through. A glass of Louis Roederer champagne gets us in the mood, but by course four we're stuffed, in all senses of the word. All that's left to do is stare in wonder through the windows of the fine jewellery boutiques that surround us, where Chopard and Graff diamonds glitter enticingly through polished glass.
The Raffles' Fashion High Tea is the more stomach-friendly bet - everything comes out at once and you can pick and choose, eating as much or as little as you want, with the added delight of your petit fours, cakes and delicacies arriving in the shape of a Louboutin shoe, a Chanel handbag or a Philip Treacy-inspired hat.
And now that I've mentioned fashion, let's get on with it: there is some serious high-end shopping to be done in Dubai. Given the heat and humidity outside - even in the "cooler" months from late October to early April - the vast, air-conditioned malls provide welcome relief for locals and tourists alike. There are around 65 different shopping malls to choose from in Dubai, with many more being constructed.
If it's big-name brands you're after, the two majors - Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates - have them. Giorgio Armani in particular is a strong presence here, with his own hotel, restaurants, spa and cafe, all streamlined paeans to elegant minimalism (armanihotels.com).
Dubai Mall sports its own versions of Galeries Lafayette and Bloomingdales, while the smaller and more manageable Mall of the Emirates has its own offshoots of Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue.
On a three-hour pilgrimage through Dubai Mall, I window-shopped at Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen and Chanel, to name just a few. If you're a shoe-aholic, visit the Level Shoe District, where all of the designer shoe labels - some impossible to get in Australia - are grouped together in a 8919sqm emporium of footwear fabulousness.
If your prefer your designer fashion avant-garde, take a taxi to IF Boutique on Umm Al Sheif Street in the Umm Suqueim district. It's one of the most beautiful boutiques I've come across, stocking luxe-but- experimental brands such as Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons and Haider Ackermann. Nothing comes cheap here, but the quality is exquisite.
Another must-visit is Boutique 1 (boutique1.com), in the chic Jumeirah Beach Residence area, which stocks the likes of Missoni, Azzedine Alaia and Diane von Furstenburg and a fantastic selection of jewellery and accessories.
If the prospect of trying to find the hidden gems on your own is daunting, Scottish expat entrepreneur Kelly Lundberg, who runs a personal shopping business called Divine, offers tailored shopping trips for time-poor fashion-lovers. For 2700 Dirhams for three people (roughly $700), you can spend a day being chauffeured around in luxury transport and sampling the best shopping Dubai has to offer with the help of an expat who really knows her stuff (divine.ae).
Think spending all your Dubai hours doing indoor global brand shopping is a waste of the city's uniqueness, but still want the luxury experience? Try out the hotel fine dining scene instead: it's a revelation. When you come from a place like Perth, which lacks good Middle Eastern fine dining options and where we froth at the mouth over every newly-opened New York-styled diner on the Terrace, the exoticism and aesthetic beauty of the restaurant scene in Dubai beggars belief.
We ate wonderful North Indian food at the opulent Amala restaurant, part of the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray resort complex in Palm Jumeirah; at Jumeirah Emirates Towers' Al Nafoorah, we feasted on traditional Lebanese cuisine in a romantic, elegant setting, sampling hot and cold meze dishes and sweet Lebanese wine while listening to live Arabic song.
In the same complex as Al Nafoorah is Hakkasan, an international restaurant franchise that also has locations in New York, Mumbai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and London (hakkasan.com). After a brief pit-stop at the cocktail bar, our group pretty much called it, hands-down, one of the sexiest restaurants we'd ever seen. A fusion of traditional Arabic elegance and nouveau-Chinese design, it was low-lit, intimate, extremely sophisticated and breathtakingly chic. And the cocktails, by the way, were pretty special.
For many, the words "luxury" and "spa" go together and there are plenty of spa options in Dubai for those so inclined. The Talise Ottoman Spa inside the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray resort is an Orientalist fantasy come to life, boasting an authentic Turkish spa and hammam with marbled floors, mosaic tiling, velvet-cushioned relaxation lounges, ladies-only areas and an indoor salt-water pool.
A signature four-hour Talise Ritual spa treatment will set you back around $400, or you can go for a one-hour hammam experience and you'll only pay around $130 - well worth the price just to admire your extravagant surroundings.
• Emirates has two flights a day from Perth to Dubai with a third daily service to be introduced next month.
• The late-evening flight arrives at 5.30am Dubai time, so if you're the type that doesn't sleep well on planes, business class is definitely worth the investment if you can manage it.
• Business class features flat-bed seats, cushy sleep mattresses, noise cancelling headphones and ambient lighting that helps adjust your body clock to new time zones: while I still didn't manage to catch any shut-eye, I felt more relaxed than I usually do on international flights, and for a non-sleeper that can count for a great deal.
• emirates.com/au, 9324 7600, 1300 303 777 or travel agents.Pip Christmass was a guest of Emirates Airline and the Government of Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.